Ageing dictator battles on

President Robert Mugabe will be in his late eighties by the time he faces Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential elections. If he were to actually win, he would rule the country well into his nineties, a challenging task for any leader considering the lack if international aid or assistance.


Many Zimbabweans want to know why he cannot just put his feet up and enjoy the years he has left with his young family. However, if nothing else, Mugabe is an extremely proud man.

He will only step down when his "revolution" is complete. According to him, this means the redistribution of foreign firms including mines and banks. He calls it the Third Chimurenga. The Second Chimurenga was about the grabbing of white-owned farms for re-distribution to blacks. The First Chimurenga was the bitter bush war against minority rule that ushered in independence in 1980.

Anointing successor

Crucially, he needs to anoint a successor, who must of course come from within the ranks of his deeply fractured Zanu (PF) party. This would also ensure a peaceful old age, with no investigation into his brutal reign in office characterised by two genocides, one in the 80s and another in 2008.

Unfortunately, he is in a quandary over his successor. His most likely heirs, Joice Mujuru and Emerson Mnangagwa, have both been fingered as "sell outs" for passing on classified inside party information to American diplomats, and even calling for his ouster.

One senior party official told The Zimbabwean that Mugabe's devastating defeat in March 2008 – which showed the strength of the opposition – had set back his retirement by several years. That defeat stirred him into action, transforming him from a relatively relaxed man contemplating his twilight years, into someone desperate to hold on to power at any cost.

The key to understanding Mugabe is the 1970s guerrilla war where he made his name. World opinion saw him as a revolutionary hero, fighting racist white minority rule for the freedom of his people.

Since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 the world has moved on, but his outlook remains the same. The heroic socialist forces of Zanu (PF) are still fighting the twin evils of capitalism and colonialism.

‘Sell outs’

His opponents, in particular the MDC, are labelled "sell outs" to white and foreign interests and, as during the war, this tag has been a death warrant for many MDC supporters.

But Mugabe's critics, and these days they are many, say that despite his socialist rhetoric, his rule has been one of state capitalism which has not materially benefited ordinary Zimbabweans. The president's political cronies have meanwhile been given lucrative state contracts irrespective of how they perform, and the economy as a whole has suffered.

Harare, a hotbed of political opposition, frequently buzzes with rumours of Mugabe's impending death. Classified US embassy cables leaked by the whistle blowing website Wikileaks confirm long-held suspicions that the old man is dying of cancer.

Remarkable stamina

But, at 87 he still has remarkable stamina. His second wife, Grace, 45, says that he wakes up at 4 o’clock in the morning for his daily exercises. They have three children together, with the last born in 1997. He professes to be a staunch Catholic, and Harare's Catholic Cathedral is occasionally swamped by security guards when he turns up for Sunday Mass.

Political scientist, Trevor Maisiri, says that, ironically, by expanding education, the president is "digging his own grave".

The young beneficiaries are now able to analyse Zimbabwe's problems for themselves and most blame government corruption and mismanagement for the lack of jobs and economic stagnation.

Mugabe is indeed a clever politician. As his fortunes have declined, he has resurrected the nationalist agenda of the 1970s – empowerment of the masses and anti-colonialism. As his political fortunes have waned, he has unleashed his personal militia who use violence and murder as an electoral strategy.

It may not be playing by the rules, but it is widely believed to have clawed back victory in the June 2008 presidential run-off vote and may work again in 2012 or 2013.

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